Olympia’s Newest Housing Developments

A few of my initial posts here discussed a theory of spacio-temporal development in Olympia. Essentially, the owners and developers of land erect structures on land where they can recover the greatest financial benefit. The factors of development are demand for housing, costs of the development, and price of acquisition of the development rights. Where those factors turn into aligning incentives, we see development.

From my earliest moments in Olympia, I’ve heard countless politician and civic activist preach that they can somehow reverse these market forces in order to develop housing downtown (where development is more expensive and where I believe, there is insufficient demand). That hasn’t really happened downtown over the last five years, but land development is happening all over Olympia.

The August 1, 2012 Site Plan Review meeting is a good example of two projects that no one is talking about—partly at least because there is little to say about the banal. We’ve seen it before, and unfortunately we’ll see it again.

Exhibit 1.

Scroll to page four for a site plan.

This is another ordinary apartment complex along Highway 101 behind the Auto-Mall. A lot of people could potentially move into these places where they will need to get in their cars to get anywhere except another gas station. In our myopic community the gas station may have become the center of life for all of us trapped in our various obscure corners of the land use map. On the other hand it, gives us our over-sized dwellings, covered parking, and inwardly focused lives with no unexpected social interaction except the opportunity to like another’s Facebook posts. (I’m particularly fond of those fun little posters that everyone is sharing these days.)

Exhibit 2.

Senior Housing. Again in a relatively isolated area (or at least not a very walkable one) because there’s no better place to fritter away the last years of one’s life, trapped in the same suburban form that trapped us during our wonder years.

I’m not sure what to make of the location of this one. The August 1 Meeting Agenda says here:

But the Design Review Board Staff report from March 22, 2012 says here:

I think either way, my general criticism applies.

See here and here for checklists that ensure some kind of compliance with the comprehensive plan. Each were carefully met or deemed inapplicable here even though of course, the development itself seems to miss the point of undergoing these kinds of analyses in the first place. I don’t care how walkable or beautiful a building is if it itself is not accessible by foot and there isn’t much else around except a hospital which I suppose is fitting, but sad.

These types of uses compartmentalize our demographic segments so effectively that we have little possibility of experiencing anything other than what we are experiencing. Thurston County holds excellent examples of introverted land uses where not only uses are segregated but the consumers of those uses are generally for one single slice of the demographic pie. Our newer neighborhoods have the same young families, luxury condos for the empty nesters, etc etc. There are no new neighborhoods or even developments that I can think of in which the occurrence of a diversity of consumers is happenstance.

A major benefit of a city is our ability to interact unexpectedly with others—whether it’s at the post office, grocery store, or tavern. That’s sorta what makes a city interesting and a lack of it makes a suburb boring. Of course, getting perspective of others even if we only observe rather than  interact with them has the potential to broaden our horizons.

Until the land is consumed in completely uninspiring developments exactly like these, the market forces governing land use will not make it rational for profit-seeking parties to develop downtown.  Long term, we’ll still hopefully see the kind of urbanization that occurs with steady jobs, demand for housing, and a declining stock of land. However, in the shorter long term (or near term), we’ll see more of the same. Unfortunately, this means we’ll start noticing more problems typically associated with excess traffic at intersections like Cooper Point and Black Lake and other overtaxed suburban forms. Likewise, these types of car dependent land uses (where literally doing anything outside the home requires owning and using a car) will continue to put a strain on the municipal finances because maintenance is expensive and will get more so as more cars are on the road.

These two actions support my conclusion that land use in Olympia (and all of Thurston County for that matter) is a disastrous patchwork of nonsense with few a bright spot here and there. That is not going to change with the Comprehensive Plan Update. Those of you holding your breath for major developments downtown best take a deep one.

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4 Responses to Olympia’s Newest Housing Developments

  1. This is more related to the Comprehensive Plan comment period (and I actually meant to comment under that post), but this post brought the question back to me.

    How could we encourage the type of commercial activity in suburban neighborhoods that are already built out and don’t have walkable services?

    For example, 2817 Boulevard: http://bit.ly/2817Boulevard This is a mostly empty 5 acre lot on Boulevard just north of Washington Middle School. I don’t know the condition of the 1200 square foot house on the property. But, if it was in good condition, I could imagine a nice low key commercial establishment in the space. Something along the lines of the SF Bakery or Sage’s Brunch House.

    So, if I wanted to buy 2817 Boulevard and put in a coffee shop/corner store/soda counter, what would be the hurdles I’d have to get over? Its currently zoned R-4/8, which would mean sometime in the future I’d also be able to put up some townhouses in the back 5 acres, but for now I’d be more theoretically interested in the possible commercial space along Boulevard.

    Is this really just an easy thing that only seems like a good idea in my mind?

    Or, is it something we expressly don’t encourage?

    Is it something we could encourage in the updated Comp Plan?

    • Mark Derricott says:

      The answer to your question is to implement a form based code instead of our current land use that relies an outdated policy of segregating every type of use into single uses stretched out horizontally over the geographic plane. (E.g. it’s either a place to live or a place to work.) Our single use regimen now doesn’t allow mixed uses except in some places that we deemed commercial/neighborhood centers and of course downtown. A form based code is more concerned with how buildings look (form) rather than what is done inside or outside (use). Obviously, you don’t want dumps or smelters next to schools, but I think relying on form solves most of those tensions anyway. Sadly, the Comp Plan has not, and I predict will not go that direction this time around.

      In fact, Emmett, if you wanted to do that the land would have to undergo a change of use from residential to a commercial use or another that allows such developments. As I read the OMC, you couldn’t get that kind of a development in even with a conditional use permit. I suppose you could try to apply for a variance by showing some kind of hardship to a hearings examiner (I think that’s unlikely here). A change of use application would require a planning commission recommendation and city council action because it is a deviation from the comprehensive plan. I didn’t mention other issues like power, traffic analysis and potential environmental issues among others that could be applicable could become major hurdles. Oh, and impact fees. People do this all the time (or once did) so it’s possible, but you’d certainly want to make sure you’d get your dollars out of that much effort. It certainly wouldn’t be due to some goodwill on anyone’s part.

      I personally believe this kind of a thing comes down to a demand problem. In sprawling suburban forms like we’ve painted ourselves into, commercial developments cannot be successful because the owners of these proposed buildings cannot be assured that they’ll be able to rent the spaces to businesses who will be able to pay the rent over the term of the lease. So you have to scale up to massive centers with massive parking lots to draw people from a much wider geographic area. If we had a few blocks of apartment buildings and townhouses around this parcel, then sure, I’d suppose we could be talking about a viable walkable low-key commercial center. This is why we see neighborhood/village developments that try to incorporate retail. I think they’re a step in the right direction, but on the other hand, it’s kinda silly to have them in the outskirts for all of the reasons I’ve discussed above.

  2. cascadian12 says:

    Mark, there is a ton of information available on how to make our communities more welcoming and diverse, and most of that work has been done by the Congress for the New Urbanism: http://www.cnu.org. I joined the Cascadia Chapter of CNU (based in Seattle and covering Vancouver BC to Portland) about a year ago to provide me with an “affiliation” to support my comments to the City and County. I think CNU is more visionary than either the American Planning Association or the Urban Land Institute (but that may be a low bar…). In any case, New Urbanists have figured out that a lively neighborhood requires mixed uses and mixed incomes, and the ability to access jobs, good and services, and recreation within a 5-minute walk. This is a vision that I think is shared by a quite a few people, given changing demographics, but there has been disagreement on how to get there.

    One school of thought is to build housing and development will follow (the Field of Dreams approach). I have always maintained, however, that people don’t move downtown because there is no reason to live downtown (Larida Passage proposed luxury condos and killer views to attract residents, but that’s an elitist approach not welcome in this community). You need “complete neighborhoods,” not just housing. And the only way to get to a complete neighborhood is by creating a master plan for a district, such as downtown (e.g., Union Street north to the tip of the Port Peninsula), that identifies “character zones,” “catalytic projects,” areas for infill, and planned services and amenities). The challenge is bringing existing landowners together to agree on a plan, but the public sector would be able to facilitate this using all of the tools at its disposal (direct investment, strategic use of public property, grants). This in turn would encourage private lenders to invest. [Emmett: One catalytic project should definitely be a new library, which is why I support a new library at the CURRENT location.]

    The master plan is basically a layout of the proposed development in an area or district, so that all of the relationships between sites can be analyzed, as well as economic development opportunities, transportation design and street-scapes. Since a certain threshold of density is required to ensure the viability of retail, that threshold would be a goal. “Mixed use” can provide ground-level retail with condos above. The master plan would largely replace current zoning, which is responsible for segregating uses as you describe. The plan gives everyone the certainty and predictability required to make investments and commitments to an area. This in turn increases value for both residents and the city. It’s no accident that the highest property values are in urban cores.

    This, to me, is much more preferable than leaving planning in the hands of developers, who have no incentive to invest in the long-term of a community and who don’t understand or care about the character of a community. In fact, if you read Christopher Leinberger’s The Option of Urbanism (or http://www.chrisleinberger.com/), you’ll find out about the 19 basic building types that lenders are willing to invest in, and that doesn’t include much mixed use, although I think that is slowly changing, but who needs Wall Street anyway?

    In conclusion, I think change is possible, but requires a lot of education of Council members, Planning Commission members, and planning staffs. It would really help to have a critical mass of citizens that understand what needs to happen. If anyone is interested in finding out more, please contact me.

    • Mark Derricott says:

      I was a member of the CNU myself for a few years, but let my membership lapse. I find their work impressive but not very widely applicable. For example, demand problem: how many people actually want to live a “community” with a mix of incomes and housing types? My experience here has led me to conclude that it is not desirable in Olympia. One need only attend a couple of city council meetings to see that people in housing developments do not want apartments built among them. And wealthy homeowners generally don’t want those of lower income groups moving in. I think these kinds of demographic compositions are entirely applicable and desirable in an advanced urban metropolitan area where for example teachers should be able to live in an apartment complex that has the penthouse for the resident white-collar criminal. This is not so with communities our size and urban composition.

      Until the area reaches some kind of advanced urban development, CNU and urban theories in general don’t have much to offer. In fact, we see tensions between new urbanism and what the CNU preach and what they build (e.g. a stand alone neighborhoods miles from any urban core completely cut off from public transportation).

      You’re exactly right about challenge of aligning the interests of existing landowners and why shouldn’t there be? When we play monopoly, we don’t try to get the optimal mix of housing/hotels, share utilities and railroads so that each of us enjoy rolling the dice on each turn. We act in our own interest by attempting to maximize our income. So from time to time the goals of profit maximization and vibrant neighborhoods coincide, but not often enough to be able to plan it out via master plans as a general rule (though I agree that the idea is theoretically enticing). Those situations occur most frequently in advanced urbanized areas as well. Olympia is not one of those and at current growth rates, won’t be one for decades.

      You and I went over the lack of amenities as a deterrent to moving downtown when we had our coffee, but I also think that people move to Olympia from other cities so they can enjoy the suburbanesque, car-based lifestyle which is impossible to do comfortably in Seattle without a lot more money than most people earn. Let’s face it, in Olympia, until there is a premium to live in a single family detached house over an apartment/condo, people are going to take the former. That premium will not surface until every bit of developable land in the county has been developed. At that point, you’ll start to see proximity and amenity premiums that will balance out consumer choice and make the prospect of dense housing one that consumers will demand and will therefore become worth the trouble for developers. You may actually see that in Lacey and Tumwater before you see it in Olympia though. I think Leinberger would agree with that conclusion.

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